January 1, 2018

Posted by orrinj at 7:00 PM


Too much screening has misled us about real cancer risk factors, experts say (SHARON BEGLEY, JANUARY 1, 2018, STAT)

The problem is especially clear in prostate, breast, and thyroid cancers, all of which are scrutiny dependent.

Men whose relatives developed prostate cancer are more likely to get PSA and other screening tests, either because they request them or because their physicians, noting their family histories, order them. Men with no such family history are less likely to be screened. Some men who get screened for prostate cancer and who are found to have elevated PSA levels undergo a prostate biopsy; some of those biopsies find cancer. (More than half of such cancers are so slow-growing that they don't affect health or longevity.) Men who don't get screened are less likely to have biopsies and so are less likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer -- not because they develop the disease at a lower rate but because they get screened at a lower rate. What you don't look for, you don't find.

"If we biopsied men without a family history of prostate cancer at the same rate that we biopsy men with a family history, we'd find more prostate cancer in them as well," Welch said. "Family history influences how hard we look for prostate cancer and therefore how much we find. The risk factor becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."

A 2016 study of increased prostate cancer screening in men with a family history of the disease concluded that the risk due to family history has been overestimated by nearly half. "The risk factor of family history is spuriously strengthened because men with a family history are exposed to greater scrutiny," write Welch and Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, in the Annals report.

"There is a flaw in this logic" of identifying risk factors "on the basis of how many cancers we find," agreed Dr. Peter Albertsen of UConn Health, an expert in prostate cancer.

In breast cancer, women who live in neighborhoods with the highest 20 percent of education and income are twice as likely to be diagnosed with that disease, a 2017 study found. That seemed to confirm reports of breast-cancer hot spots in some of America's wealthiest areas, leading the government and others to spend tens of millions of dollars to find out why. Those studies came up empty: they found no association between rates of breast cancer and proximity to a hazardous waste site or pesticide exposure, for instance.

Wealthier, better educated women are, however, more connected to the health care system and therefore get more mammograms, breast ultrasounds, and MRIs. The more scrutiny, the more likely that harmless cases of breast cancer are found. (The idea of "harmless" breast cancer sounds like an oxymoron, but an estimated one-half of breast cancers detected by screening would never cause problems even if undetected and untreated.)

Breast tumors found by imaging are much more likely to be harmless than those discovered by women or their physicians finding a breast lump. Income and education are therefore less likely to be a true risk factor for breast cancer and more likely to be a "risk factor" for undergoing screening. If poorer, less educated women were screened for breast cancer at the same rate as wealthier, better educated women, the socioeconomic risk factor would likely vanish.

Posted by orrinj at 6:56 PM


Joe Hockey discussed Alexander Downer's Russia revelations with FBI (David Wroe, 1/02/18, SMH)

The ambassador to the United States Joe Hockey personally steered Australia's dealings with the FBI on explosive revelations of Russian hacking during last year's presidential campaign in a sign of how politically sensitive the Australian government regarded the bombshell discovery, Fairfax Media understands. [...]

Mr Hockey is believed to have been involved in discussions with the FBI, indicating the Australian government was keenly alive to its political sensitivity, given it raised the possibility that one side of a presidential campaign was colluding with a foreign power against the other side.

Former officials and experts have said Australia dealt with the fraught situation correctly and had little choice but to share information of this nature with its closest ally.

Posted by orrinj at 6:51 PM


Can the Economy Keep Calm and Carry On? (Paul Krugman JAN. 1, 2018, NY Times)

[I]f we could find an economist who didn't know that there was an election in 2016, and showed her the economic data for the past couple of years, she would have no clue that something drastic happened:

For that matter, economic developments in the U.S. during Trump's first year were remarkably similar to developments in other advanced countries. Europe, in particular, has at least for now emerged from the shadow of the euro crisis, and is steadily growing - if you take its lower population growth into account, it's doing a bit better than the US:

So we're living in an era of political turmoil and economic calm.

It's almost like the global economy doesn't care that much about your feelings.

Posted by orrinj at 3:30 PM


Nobody died in a commercial jet crash in all of 2017 (jEVA lANGE, 1/01/18, tHE wEEK)

No commercial jets fatally crashed anywhere in the world in 2017, making it the safest year on record for the aviation industry, The Independent reports.

Posted by orrinj at 12:27 PM


Iranians still waiting for dramatic economic change (Megan O'Toole, 30 Apr 2017, Al Jazeera)

The Grand Bazaar in Iran's capital bustles with shoppers strolling past stacks of gold brocade pillowcases, rows of gleaming coffeepots and bins filled with red barberries.

The din of afternoon chatter echoes off the bazaar's high ceilings. But inside Mohsin Daliri's small shop, only one or two customers linger to inspect his piles of lush Persian carpets; they eventually leave without a purchase.

Daliri tells Al Jazeera that despite expectations of a swift economic recovery after Iran's landmark 2015 nuclear deal, many businesses are continuing to suffer.

"There have been no tangible changes in the market. There was hope upon hope that things would get better, but in reality, it stayed the same. My business is suffering from stagnation. There is no positive impulse in the market," he says, noting that despite the lifting of sanctions, some Western countries were still not importing his wares.

"After Nowruz [the Iranian new year], business was really bad. Many merchants haven't reopened their stores and have even laid off staff ... People believe the nuclear deal was fake," Daliri adds. "All we got were three aeroplanes and nothing else. Banking transactions, the use of credit cards - none of this was fixed, and this is very important for moving the market forward."

The implementation of the nuclear deal in early 2016 was hailed by President Hassan Rouhani as a turning point for Iran's economy. "The nuclear deal is an opportunity that we should use to develop the country, improve the welfare of the nation, and create stability and security in the region," Rouhani said at the time, citing a "golden page" in the country's history.

Indeed, there have been signs of improvement: According to a February report from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the lifting of sanctions and consequent rebound in oil exports spurred growth in Iran, with expectations that it would reach 4.5 percent over the medium term. However, "banking system weaknesses, structural bottlenecks, and hesitation by foreign banks to re-establish financial links have held back expansion of non-oil activity", the IMF noted.

And with unemployment in the country of 80 million people surpassing 12 percent last year, many average Iranians feel they have not personally benefitted from the nuclear deal.

Posted by orrinj at 12:23 PM


The President Can't Kill the Mueller Investigation (Jack Goldsmith, January 1, 2018, LawFare)

One of most remarkable stories of 2017 was the extent to which President Donald Trump was prevented from executing his many pledges--both on the campaign trail and in office--to violate the law. As predicted, courts, the press, the bureaucracy, civil society, and even Congress were aggressive and successful in stopping or deterring Trump from acting unlawfully.* [...]

 I believe that what we learned in 2017 should give us confidence in 2018 that Trump will not be able to terminate the Mueller investigation.

Begin with how well the system has worked thus far. Attorney General Jeff Sessions infuriated Trump when he followed DOJ rules and recused himself from the investigation. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein infuriated Trump when he followed DOJ rules and appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. These men took the proper steps despite the allegiance that political appointees typically feel toward the president who appointed them. They did so because they are embedded in and charged with running an institution with rules and norms that they feel personal and professional responsibility to abide by and uphold. This is a key point, to which I will return.

The Sessions recusal, which set the Mueller investigation in motion, was especially remarkable in light of the attorney general's decades in politics and special fealty (at least at the time) to the president. Ever since the Mueller investigation began in May, Trump has, in a truly unprecedented and vicious fashion, bashed Sessions, Rosenstein, Mueller, the department for which they work, and Mueller's "witch hunt." And yet, despite clear opposition from the man ostensibly in charge of the executive branch, the Mueller investigation has proceeded aggressively and without interruption. It has proceeded, moreover, through the transition atop the FBI from the man Trump fired (Comey) to the man Trump chose to replace him (Chris Wray). Wray shows every indication thus far of working closely with and fully supporting Mueller.

In short, the political appointees in the Justice Department who are connected to the Mueller investigation have shown that they follow the rules and norms of the department despite the president's wishes otherwise. This is all an amazing (though widely unappreciated) testament to DOJ's independence and the rule of law. I think the mechanisms that worked so well in 2017 will keep working to see the investigation through, no matter what steps Trump takes to stop it.

If Trump wished to stop the Mueller investigation, he couldn't just tweet a declaration that it is over. The investigation is guided by a set of Justice Department regulations that Rosenstein deemed "applicable to the Special Counsel" in his appointment Order. (The regulations give control over the Mueller investigation to the attorney general--who, because Sessions is recused, is Rosenstein, the acting attorney general for this purpose.) Rosenstein in theory could, under 28 CFR 600.7(b), order Mueller not to pursue "any investigative or prosecutorial step," but only if Rosenstein concluded, after giving Mueller's views "great weight," that Mueller's proposed step was "inappropriate or unwarranted under established Departmental practices." Rosenstein could also in theory remove Mueller from office under 28 CFR 600.7(d), but only for "misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or for other good cause, including violation of Departmental policies." If Rosenstein took either course, he would need to justify his actions in writing to Congress.

...is their delusion that Mueller or any of his staff matter.

Posted by orrinj at 12:16 PM


Why Trump's War on the Deep State Is Failing--So Far (Benjamin Wittes, January 1, 2018, lawFare)

In the near-year he has been president, he has done or tried to do all of the things I flagged:

He has demanded substantive outcomes from investigations.

He has demanded investigations of political opponents.

He has raged against the norms that prevent these wishes from being fulfilled.

He has attacked--publicly and by name--people who have acted honorably to defend those norms.

He fired the redoubtable FBI director whom I flagged as an inconvenient bulwark--for precisely the reason that James Comey was functioning as an inconvenient bulwark.

He has harassed Comey's management team and demanded publicly their replacement.

He has made the environment for those assistant U.S. attorneys committed to their jobs so uncomfortable that one literally sat in my office and told me that he was going to resign because "I don't want to stand up in court any more and say, I'm [his name] and I represent the United States."

He has appointed an attorney general he specifically intended to protect him and go after his opponents.

This is banana-republic-type stuff.  One year into Trump's term in office, his character has not changed. The president of the United States--as John Bellinger warned as early as December 2015 and as I elaborated on in March of 2016--remains the principal threat in the world to the national security of the United States. His aspirations are as profoundly undemocratic and hostile to the institutions of democratic governance as they have ever been. He announces as much in interview after interview, in tweet after tweet. The president has not changed, and he will not change. Whether he has grown or will grow is not even an interesting question.

The interesting question, one year in, is how the apparatus of democratic government is weathering his onslaught. The answer to this question is complicated but, I think, ultimately encouraging.

Posted by orrinj at 12:09 PM


ORDER FROM CHAOS  : The year in review: Counterterrorism (Daniel L. Byman, December 29, 2017, Brookings)

Setting aside the fall of the caliphate, the counterterrorism picture looks positive from the perspective of U.S. homeland security. In 2017, nine people died on U.S. soil from jihadist terrorist attacks (a security guard killed in Denver, two Americans and six foreign tourists, killed during the car-ramming attack in New York City). That's nine too many but it should not obscure that the overall number is low. This low number probably stems from a mix of strong U.S. counterterrorism measures abroad, aggressive investigations and better defenses at home, and the overall weakness of jihadist networks in the United States.

Europe remains worse off than America, but here too the picture may be brightening. In 2015, jihadists killed 150 people in Europe and 135 died in 2016. As 2017 winds to a close, however, that figure fell to less than 60. Europe is even more threatened than America by returning foreign fighters and HVEs, but it too has improved counterterrorism practices, and the decline of the Islamic State, which had previously inspired over thousands of Europeans to travel and fight with the group since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, also bodes well for Europe in the long-term.

Al-Qaida too has taken hits. In particular, al-Qaida recently suffered a major loss when its Syrian affiliate, Hay'at Tahrir al Sham (HTS, or Organization for the Liberation of the Levant and formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra), split from the al-Qaida core in an acrimonious divorce. As Syria remains the most important theater of jihad, the al-Qaida core's setback--and HTS' apparent determination to focus on the Syrian theater rather than the global targets that al-Qaida favors--hinders its ability to threaten the west and raises questions about its overall relevance under Ayman al-Zawahiri's leadership.

Posted by orrinj at 12:04 PM


WILDERNESS OF MIRRORS (Jefferson Morley, January 1 2018, The Intercept)

VETERAN CIA OFFICER Cleveland Cram was nearing the end of his career in 1978, when his superiors in the agency's directorate of operations handed him a sensitive assignment: Write a history of the agency's Counterintelligence Staff. Cram, then 61, was well qualified for the task. He had a master's and Ph.D. in European History from Harvard. He had served two decades in the clandestine service, including nine years as deputy chief of the CIA's station in London. He knew the senior officialdom of MI-5 and MI-6, the British equivalents of the FBI and CIA, the agency's closest partners in countering the KGB, the Soviet Union's effective and ruthless intelligence service.

Cram was assigned to investigate a debacle. The Counterintelligence Staff, created in 1954, had been headed for 20 years by James Jesus Angleton, a legendary spy who deployed the techniques of literary criticism learned at Yale to find deep patterns and hidden meanings in the records of KGB operations against the West. But Angleton was also a dogmatic and conspiratorial operator whose idiosyncratic theories paralyzed the agency's operations against the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, and whose domestic surveillance operations targeting American dissidents had discredited the CIA in the court of public opinion.

In December 1974, CIA Director William Colby fired Angleton after the New York Times revealed the then-unknown counterintelligence chief had overseen a massive program to spy on Americans involved in anti-war and black nationalist movements, a violation of the CIA's charter. Coming four months after the resignation of Richard Nixon, Angleton's fall was the denouement of the Watergate scandal, propelling Congress to probe the CIA for the first time. A Senate investigation, headed by Sen. Frank Church, exposed a series of other abuses: assassination conspiracies, unauthorized mail opening, collaboration with human rights abusers, infiltration of news organizations, and the MKULTRA mind-control experiments to develop drugs for use in espionage.

The exposure of Angleton's operations set off a political avalanche that engulfed the agency in 1975 and after. The post-Watergate Congress established the House and Senate intelligence committees to oversee covert operations. The passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act required the CIA to obtain warrants to spy on Americans. And for the first time since 1947, the agency's annual appropriation was slashed.

Cram's mission -- and he chose to accept it -- was to soberly answer the questions that senior CIA officials were asking in their private moments: What in the name of God and national security had Jim Angleton been doing when he ran the Counterintelligence Staff from 1954 to 1974? Did his operations serve the agency's mission? Did they serve the country?

With his porkpie hat and trenchcoat, the portly Cram bore a passing resemblance to George Smiley, the fictional British spymaster as played by Alec Guinness in the BBC's production of John le Carré's classic "Smiley's People." There was some professional similarity as well. In le Carré's novels, Smiley is introduced as a veteran counterintelligence officer called on by his superiors to assess a covert operation gone disastrously wrong. He is drawn into a hunt for a mole in the British intelligence service.

Cram's task in 1978 was to investigate a covert career that culminated in a disastrous mole hunt. Like Smiley, Cram was a connoisseur of files, their connections and implications, their deceptions and omissions. Like Smiley, he embarked on a Cold War espionage odyssey that would fill more than a few volumes.

When Cram took the assignment, he thought his history of the Counterintelligence Staff would take a year to write. It took six. By 1984, Cram had produced 12 legal-sized volumes about Angleton's reign as a spymaster, each running 300 to 400 pages -- a veritable encyclopedia of U.S. counterintelligence that has never before been made public. With professional thoroughness, Cram plumbed the depths of a deep state archive and returned with a story of madness that the CIA prefers to keep hidden, even 40 years later.

Posted by orrinj at 8:55 AM


Confessions of a Columnist (Ross Douthat, DEC. 30, 2017, NY Times)

I was not the fiercest of deficit hawks, not a hard-money type or an inflation-panicker. But as a non-economist staring at Congressional Budget Office projections and at examples of fiscal crisis from Greece to California, it seemed reasonable to make deficit cutting a near-term priority from 2010 onward, to offset the surge of Great Recession spending with a period of belt-tightening.

But now I think this reasonable view was wrong. Not completely, in the sense that many of the deficit-reducing policies I supported -- means-testing entitlement programs, eliminating tax breaks for the wealthy and upper middle class -- I still support, because I think the money involved is presently misspent. But I was wrong in the priority that I gave the deficit relative to other issues, wrong to discern a looming "fiscal precipice," wrong in some of the criticism I leveled at both George W. Bush and Barack Obama for failing to care enough about balancing the nation's books.

The best time to make deficit reduction a priority is when the inflation rate and the bond market give you some indication that you are headed for a dangerous inflationary spiral. Such indicators were conspicuously absent eight years ago, but many people I talked to (including people in the Obama White House) argued that it was important to reduce deficits pre-emptively, because the spiraling could happen too quickly for policymakers to effectively respond. At that point I believed them; now I think they had overlearned lessons from the 1970s that did not apply in 2010.

Instead, in hindsight the most important economic argument of the early Obama years was between two schools of thought that agreed we should put more money into the economy and only disagreed about how to do it -- the Keynesians who wanted massive government spending and the market monetarists who favored looser monetary policy. Today, both sides of that debate look far better than the strict fiscal and monetary hawks, and the endless arguments about Bowles-Simpson look like an interesting exercise that did not deserve so much swarming attention from politicians and the press.

Deficits/debt can only be made to look like an existential problem when taken in a vacuum. Expand outward to look at our national net worth or consider that the $25 trillion (beginning of 2017) of stocks that we own have returned over 15% the last five years and then try to explain why we would be better off withdrawing out money from those stocks to balance the budget than we are borrowing the money at such significantly lower interest rates? 

Posted by orrinj at 8:40 AM


Why experts believe cheaper, better lidar is right around the corner (TIMOTHY B. LEE, 1/1/2018, Ars Technica)

Some experts believe the key to building lidar that costs hundreds of dollars instead of thousands is to abandon Velodyne's mechanical design--where a laser physically spins around 360 degrees, several times per second--in favor of a solid-state design that has few if any moving parts. That could make the units simpler, cheaper, and much easier to mass-produce.

Nobody knows how long it will take to build cost-effective automotive-grade lidar. But all of the experts we talked to were optimistic. They pointed to the many previous generations of technology--from handheld calculators to antilock brakes--that became radically cheaper as they were manufactured at scale. Lidar appears to be on a similar trajectory, suggesting that in the long run, lidar costs won't be a barrier to mainstream adoption of self-driving cars.

Posted by orrinj at 8:32 AM


Oil Production Booming in U.S. (Thomas Heath, 12/31/17, The Washington Post)

Shale oil drills can now plunge deep into the earth, pivot and tunnel sideways for miles, hitting an oil pocket the size of a chair, Verrastro said.

The United States is so awash in oil that petroleum-rich Saudi Arabia's state-owned oil and natural gas company is reportedly interested in investing in the fertile Texas Permian Basin shale oil region, according to a report last month.

That is a far cry from the days when U.S. production was on what was thought to be an irreversible downward path.

"For years and years, we thought we were running out of oil," Verrastro said. "It took $120 for a barrel of oil to make people experiment with technology, and that has been unbelievably successful. We are the largest oil and gas producer in the world."

Shale oil drillers have spawned a revolution using high-pressure drilling, coupled with a mixture of water and sand, which breaks open -- "fractures" -- hard-to-reach oil pockets trapped in rock.

The United States exported 2.13 million barrels a day of oil in the week through Oct. 27, the first time the nation has crossed the 2 million-barrels-per-day mark.

Posted by orrinj at 8:25 AM


Anger against regime grows, but Iran protests still driven by economics (ERIC RANDOLPH, 1/01/18, Times of Israel)

Though they started over high living costs, they quickly spread across the country and turned against the Islamic system as a whole, with chants of "Death to the dictator" and attacks on symbols of the regime lending them a revolutionary air.

But analysts say the protests are still rooted in bread-and-butter issues as patience runs thin with officials for failing to improve livelihoods.

"It can be an uncomfortable idea for some people to treat Iran the same as other countries," said Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, an analyst and founder of the Europe-Iran Business Forum.

"But what brings Iranians out on the streets most consistently are normal economic problems -- frustration with the lack of jobs, uncertainty about their children's future," he told AFP.

Posted by orrinj at 8:18 AM


I Win All My Ebola Bets (Bryan Caplan, 1/01/18, EconLog)

Back in 2014, Ebola was national - and global - news.  Even in Africa, fears ultimately turned out to be overblown.  The WHO's official tally was about 11,000 fatalities.  The true figure is almost certainly higher, but not grossly so.  This is far short of the hundreds of thousands of deaths so many predicted.  Brad DeLong, for example, opined: "Ebola will not become the biggest public health problem in West Africa unless deaths reach the high seven figures - which they may: it is highly likely that deaths in the six figures are now baked in the cake." [...[

Rather than fruitlessly argue with a maelstrom of passion, I publicly proposed the following bet in October, 2014:

$100 says that less than 300 people will die of Ebola within the fifty United States by January 1, 2018.

Four noble souls took the other side.  Since today is January 1, 2018, I am pleased to announce that I have won the bet.  (Since all prepaid, we're already settled up).

Part of the reason deaths were mercifully low, no doubt, is that health workers took the danger seriously.  But of course, that's one of the variables wise bettors will factor into their decisions.  And despite angry Congressional calls for travel bans, Obama went with the moderate expert consensus.  Domestically speaking, little was done.  And domestically speaking, even less happened.

How the Ebola Crisis Helped Launch Donald Trump's Political Career (STEVEN HATCH, APR. 3, 2017, Mother Jones)

In July 2014, as the largest Ebola outbreak in history was ravaging West Africa, Donald Trump took to Twitter to complain that two sick American health workers were being flown back to the United States for treatment. "Ebola patient will be brought to the U.S. in a few days--now I know for sure that our leaders are incompetent," wrote the future leader of free world. "KEEP THEM OUT OF HERE!" Over the months that followed, Trump would tweet about the outbreak more than 50 times.

Trump's social-media outbursts were among the earliest shots fired in the political war over Ebola. The timing of the Ebola outbreak could not have been more propitious for Republicans, many of whom echoed Trump's calls for a temporary travel ban.

Posted by orrinj at 8:14 AM


Economists Are Saying We Will Have A Happy -- Really Happy -- New Year (Marilyn Geewax, 1/01/18, NPR)

The key reason for such optimism is the growth happening around the world. After a crushing global financial crisis that started in 2008, many parts of the world have taken a long time to bounce back. For example, Europe, which was hit hard by the recession, bounced back in 2017 and is on track to expand at a decent 2.2 percent in 2018, thanks to "falling unemployment, a competitive euro helping exports and a supportive policy backdrop," Behravesh said.

When Europeans are in better financial shape, they buy more U.S. goods and services. And emerging markets are perking up too. Overall, global growth should hit a healthy 3.2 percent in the new year, he predicts.

Besides continued global growth, economists often cite these factors in their upbeat outlooks: tame inflation, low interest rates, low unemployment, tax cuts, pent-up demand for homes, productivity growth and improved consumer confidence.

For Behravesh, this is the bottom line: "Risk of recession remains low."

Are there clouds anywhere in the sky? If one thing gives analysts pause, it's the still-slow growth in wages. Consumers have perked up in attitude, but their income growth has continued to be restrained.

All of the factors driving global growth--free movement of goods and people, technology, adoption of free markets domestically, decline in armed conflicts--are deflationary, so how would wages grow strongly?